The When, What, How of Jonas Valanciunas’ breakout

Every year we have the same conversation about Valanciunas.

When is Valanciunas’ time? What is standing in the way of his breakout? And How can he overcome those hurdles?

Let’s address those questions.

When is Jonas breaking out?

“Eventually” is the presumed answer to the question of “when”. General manager Masai Ujiri mused during last season’s playoff run that Valanciunas was ready for a bigger role — a logical conclusion given how Valanciunas dominated in the Miami Heat series.

But the offseason hasn’t been kind to Valanciunas. Billed as the featured player after a half-decade of playing for his country, Valanciunas looked utterly awful on both ends of the floor with Lithuania in the Olympics. He finished the tournament scoring 6.7 points per game on 39 percent shooting as the Baltic Giants failed to medal.

That led to his coach Jonas Kuzlauskas — who is something of a hardass, but also someone who is thoroughly familiar with Valanciunas after coaching him through numerous tournaments — to question his work ethic.

“I believe Lithuania will be his team in future and he’ll be fine. But he has to dedicate himself to basketball more.”

If the comment seemed harsh, it’s because it was pretty fucking harsh. Raptors beat reporters came out of the woodwork to defend Valanciunas’ work ethic over his four seasons in the NBA. Instead of laziness, they pointed to exhaustion — Valanciunas played the season, launched a deep playoff run, then almost immediately jumped into Olympic play.

Valanciunas’ lethargic play in preseason furthered the burnout theory. Outside of his rookie year, Valanciunas was never confused with being an energetic player. He normally labors and lumbers — he just seems even more laborious and more lumbering through October. Valanciunas looks tired in most games and didn’t asserted himself to any appreciable degree in preseason.

Perhaps that was to be expected. Dwane Casey mused before their first preseason game in Vancouver that Valanciunas wasn’t fully fit. And while Casey’s comments weren’t nearly as scathing as those made by Kuzlauskas, the only difference in their words was PR training. The message was the same.

“Right now I think he’s still having a little lag from coming from Europe, coming from the Olympics … so right now he’s working himself into tip-top shape.”

Whatever the extenuating circumstances, Valanciunas’ production can’t be questioned.

He hasn’t played at peak fitness but he’s still putting up close to a double-double in just over 20 minutes per game. On Wednesday he looked atrocious on either end in the Pistons game, but to my surprise, he finished the night with nine points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and nearly led the team with three assists. Two weeks before that against Denver, Valanciunas was burned repeatedly by European counterpart Nikola Jokic but Valanciunas somehow racked up four fouls on Denver’s defense in the opening frame.

What that points to is that the talent is right there for Valanciunas to harness. Even during a bad month, sporting a bad haircut, Valanciunas still manages to provide meaningful production. It comes that easily for him at times, which is why after three years, the answer to the question of “when” is still “inevitable” because there clearly is so much talent locked within him.

But given how Valanciunas performed over the summer and into the preseason, the answer to when is also: not right now.

What is standing in the way of Valanciunas’ breakout?

The modern game

There isn’t any doubt that Valanciunas can be productive with more opportunities. On a team where he’s the featured player, Valanciunas could approach 20–10 on shooting above 50 percent from the field. In another era Valanciunas would be considered as a franchise player.

In this era, however, the place for a player like Valanciunas isn’t so clear. The uncomfortable truth surely bristles against every honest Raptors fan: There is not one successful team in today’s NBA built around a lumbering low-post scorer.

Not one.

The closest analogues to a fully-grown Valanciunas are DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez, whose teams went a combined 54–110 last season. The path to success for a center who can’t stretch the floor, can’t anchor a defense, and who can’t handle the ball is non-existent in today’s NBA.

(Keep in mind that Cousins and Lopez can both pass and they both have more range than Valanciunas. That added flexibility allows them to punish teams for sending double teams. They’re complete offensive players that can be the featured player for an offense. Valanciunas lacks the requisite skills to take on a similar role.)

That’s not to overplay the death of the traditional center. Big men remain as important as ever, it’s just that the position is being redefined much like how power forwards diversified over the last two decades. Modern centers like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Kristaps Porzingis will still dominate the league, just like past centers from another time. They’re just no longer exempt from the shifting landscape of an NBA game that has moved onto pace and space in light of rule changes and technological advancements.

If the league zigs too far in one direction, there still exists the possibility to zag. If the league continues to downsize, that should create mismatches for bigs to reclaim the post area that’s dying a rapid death. We saw an exaggerated example of this with Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo in the Heat series — there will be costs to downsizing provided that bigs can capitalize on them.

But can Valanciunas capitalize on them? Or will rangier bigs burn him on defense by making him guard on the perimeter? The onus is on Valanciunas to make the math work in his favor, and as of right now, the answer is unclear. Some games he’s the dog leashed to the owner, some games the owner picks up after his dog shit.

Valanciunas needs to definitely win that power struggle.

Doomed to being the third option

The other question is one of logistics: Is there even a place on the Raptors for Valanciunas to grow into?

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry dominate the ball but that works for them. Many want Casey to bend the offense into giving Valanciunas more touches (rightfully so; he’s really efficient) but the Raptors have posted three-straight seasons of a top-10 offense with everything the way it is. It’s hard to change when things are going well, and even though being proactive is wise, that’s also a very hard sell for the coach to make.

Lowry should be able to play with Valanciunas since they occupy different areas of the court, but it’s a much harder fit with DeRozan and Valanciunas since they take up similar areas of the court.

Valanciunas does most of his work on the left block so he can work around to his right-hand hook shot in the middle of the lane. He also developed a counter where he can spin away from bigs sitting on his right hand by fading baseline for the soft jumper.

DeRozan, on the other hand, will operate all over the floor, but he’s most effective when he’s at either block, or better yet at the rim. But if Valanciunas is setting up shop in the paint, then that creates overlap to be worked around, which is why DeRozan’s map skews towards the right (the map also skews right because DeRozan is much better dribbling at defenders with his right hand.)

The solution would be to have Valanciunas in pick-and-roll so he’s not clogging the paint. But that has its own problems.

One, Lowry and DeRozan (and even Cory Joseph) are excellent shooters off the high screen as they all rank within the top-25 in points per possession. DeRozan, in particular, ranks third-best in the league off the high screen. Ironically enough, Valanciunas sets such sturdy screens with his wide body that it hurts his own case of getting the pass.

Two, Valanciunas is one-dimensional on the roll. His objective every time is to go towards the basket. He can’t pop (or more accurately, he’ll decide not to pop after three half-hearted pump fakes), nor is he an astute passer on the catch should help defenders rotate over to him. He also isn’t much of an athletic target in the threat of an oop is rarely credible.

Don’t get it twisted: Valanciunas has soft hands and tremendous touch around the basket so it’s not like hitting him on the roll is a bad option. Only four players scored more points per roll than Valanciunas last season. But it’s not always easy to find him in that scenario.

The point comes back to that there might not be more touches in the offense for Valanciunas with how things are. Put aside schematics as it boils down to a simple fact that Valanciunas will always be the third option at best with DeRozan and Lowry on the floor. Casey even admitted as much during training camp.

“JV can score, I don’t know if our offense is constituted for him to get as many touches, we’re probably going to have to do that some more to get some more points in the post.”
“Again, Jonas’ challenge is to make sure he gets deep post position. So many times he allows the defense to force him out of his sweet spot. I think he has to continue to learn to use his body, establish low post position, and keep it, instead of getting pushed out. That comes with time.”

Bench option

Here’s a potential workaround: Make Valanciunas the featured player of the second unit and unleash his post scoring against shitty second unit scrubs. That’s one way to artificially promote him in the pecking order.

Most of the league is already trending that way by stuffing their low-post bigs onto second units, as Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer wrote last week. Enes Kanter (the closest approximate to Valanciunas in age and skillset) thrived in that role for the Thunder, and players like Zach Randolph and Al Jefferson will follow that same blueprint this season.

But again, this runs into the same problem encountered earlier, because the Raptors already have a good thing going with the bench unit. The Lowry + bench was their best lineup last season by plus-minus and by any other measure you prefer. That unit thrived by playing fast and spreading the floor around Biyombo’s unsure rim runs. Valanciunas is a much better pick-and-roll finisher than his 873-year-old former teammate, but he doesn’t come close to replicating that energy and that speed.

The LeBron problem

Yes, LeBron is so ubiquitous that he even sneaks into a discussion about Valanciunas, because he’s the gatekeeper of the Eastern Conference. If the Raptors truly have championship aspirations, they need to gameplan around beating LeBron.

History has shown that rim protection is extremely important when it comes to stopping LeBron. It took historic defenders like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, and most recently, Draymond Green to slow down the King.

Valanciunas is none of these dudes. He’s not even close.

This is a problem if the Raptors truly have championship aspirations. Getting by James with the right personnel (the Bulls and Pacers had the right idea with Joakim Noah/Roy Hibbert paired with Luol Deng/Paul George) can still fall short. You want it to be one way when bringing a boxcutter like Valanciunas to a gunfight with LeBron, but it’s the one way.

How can Valanciunas overcome those hurdles?

Defense and conditioning

The immediate hurdle facing Valanciunas is his defense. There are too many match-ups that burn him, and that remains the №1 reason as to why he doesn’t get minutes. Without the playing time, there is no breakout.

Casey says improving on defense is the first frontier for Valanciunas.

“But mainly, for him to take the next step, for us, is on the defensive end. And again, he’s doing a heck of a job of getting down in a stance, keeping the ball in front of him. I thought that started last year in the playoffs, before he got hurt, to just continue to improve.”

Given his current level of athleticism, Valanciunas tops out as an average defender (at worst he’s a pylon). His best trait is defensive rebounding and he’s decent at guarding post-ups since he’s 7-foot.

But put Valanciunas into space with the pick-and-roll, and he’s absolutely toast.

Running a pick-and-pop usually sees Valanciunas slowly lunge out at the shooter that can either (a) take the open shot since the contest is late, or (b) drive past and put the Raptors into scramble mode.

Switching the play is untenable. Valanciunas is big, sure, but his footwork isn’t nearly good enough to stay in front of guards. One crossover and they’re either open for the shot, or can scoot past Valanciunas for the take.

The best case scenario is for Valanciunas to drop back into space and try to guard the rim. But even that can be troublesome. He doesn’t have the requisite awareness (nor the athletic prowess necessary to lend him more slack) in that momentary 2-on-1 off the high screen when Valanciunas has to contain both the ball handler, while also preventing conceding the pocket pass to the roller.

This especially becomes a problem, again, when Valanciunas shares the floor with DeRozan. Perhaps it’s because he plays so many minutes and does so much on offense, but DeRozan doesn’t exhibit much compete on defense and will pretty much die on every screen. That really burns Valanciunas.

Toronto’s loss at Denver last season exhibits all the weaknesses described by Valanciunas on defense. Watch how Nikola Jokic schools him on almost every match-up.

What would help Valanciunas the most is awareness. If he could anticipate plays rather than react, then he would fare much better. Because it’s not like Marc Gasol or Andrew Bogut are any less lumbering than Valanciunas — they just combine towering size and deft anticipation.

Failing that, Valanciunas needs to regain some of the quickness that he exhibited in his rookie year, and at times last season. Lethargic Valanciuas is dead on arrival; active Valanciunas can sometimes put up a fight.

Remember how spry Valanciunas used to be before the coaching staff asked him to bulk up to Hibbert’s size? Yeah, that was a mistake. Look at where Hibbert is right now.

Versatility in the pick-and-roll

The Raptors were smart in having Valanciunas work with SuperSonics legend Jack Sikma. They identified early on that Valanciunas was one-dimensional in the pick-and-roll, so they brought in one of the most versatile centers in the history of the league for tutoring.

Valanciunas needs work in two areas. One, he has to be a better passer on the roll, and to his credit, he’s starting to make the odd forward-thinking pass every week or so. Two, he needs to be confident in his jumper.

Casey even suggested for Valanciunas to try the 3-pointer (crazy, I know, but it would draw out the opposing center to make DeRozan/Lowry/Joseph’s drives all the more lethal).

I always said the next venture for him is to start shooting the 3-point shot. I think that’s something that at some point in his career he’s going to be able to do, because he has a great shooting touch, Jack Sikma’s doing a great job with him working on his jumpshot.

The best case scenario for Valanciunas is to be a stronger version of Jokic. But Jokic might also be the second coming of Pau Gasol in this string of somewhat racist Euro-centric comparisons, so expecting Valanciunas to get there is a tall task.

Opportunity and trust

There isn’t any doubt that Valanciunas can produce more if given more touches. But the goal isn’t to maximize Valanciunas’ production, the goal is to maximize the Raptors as a team in the interest of winning.

What all that really translates to is that Valanciunas hasn’t been afforded the chance to fail in his development. The Raptors suddenly became a playoff team a quarter-way into his sophomore year, and ever since then Valanciunas’ development has taken a backseat to executing a winning formula. He found a space to exist within that formula, but the team is leery of trying for more.

And look, that’s not entirely fair to Valanciunas. DeRozan got every chance to make mistakes since the Raptors were total shit, whereas Valanciunas grew up in the middle of something. DeRozan was a frenzy plant that grew wildly before getting trimmed down as he matured. By comparison, Valanciunas has been locked to a rigid support and forced to grow the right way and only the right way, so naturally his development hasn’t been as rapid.

So … what’s the deal?

To be honest I don’t think there even should be an expectation for Valanciunas to breakout. Too many factors are working against him at the moment. The game is changing, his opportunities remain limited, and there’s no major incentive from the franchise to focus their developmental efforts upon him.

Instead what I see from Valanciunas is an established player who is somewhat close to his ceiling. He’s an effective starting center with some weaknesses. I see someone who can improve on the margins to become a top-10 player at his position, not someone with untapped superstar potential.

And quite frankly I’m fine with that. Not everyone is perfect. But this does become a problem if the franchise is waiting on Valanciunas’ breakout to carry them over the top. That avenue might not exist.

But to answer my own three questions as to Valanciunas’s breakout:

  • When is he breaking out? — Valanciunas has already broken out, for the most part.
  • What’s holding him back? — He’s a tricky fit in the modern game on a team that doesn’t need him to breakout to thrive.
  • How to get there? — Improve on defense, become more well-rounded on offense, or find a team that will invest development resources into him.